Happy Days at the Royal Exchange

Maxine Peake wrings a lot out of her face. Which is good news, because for much of Happy Days that’s as much as the audience can see of her. In Samuel Beckett’s testing two-hander, the Royal Exchange’s associate artist is buried waist-deep, and subsequently up to her neck, in metaphor – and more besides.

Happy Days, the most recent collaboration between Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, is almost perfect in using the theatre’s striking in-the-round set-up. With Peake’s Winnie and husband Willie (David Crellin) stuck in or on a revolving pyramid of scorched earth it’s as if someone has deposited a large termite mound inside a mini Hadron collider. It’s a remarkable thing to come across in any theatre; in the Royal Exchange Naomi Dawson’s set makes perfect sense.

But perhaps more a moat than a mound. There is a sense of isolation provided by a circle of water, with plastic littering the shoreline. Beckett’s absurdist play may function as metaphor for life, love and loneliness, but its protagonists are trapped within a very real pile of dirt.

From here Winnie embarks on what is an almost complete monologue, punctuated only with rare interjections from the apparently-serene Willie. She seems to fear silence; he appears to hate noise. Taken alone, Winnie’s words might amount to little but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

She cleans her teeth, erects a parasol, chides her husband. The juxtaposition of crashing monotony and the surreal situation allows a deep exploration of futility kept at bay by whimsy, habit and buggering on; a cream cracker, underground, on an impossible island.

Peake’s performance is reminiscent of erstwhile situation comedy’s leading ladies. It’s hard to not detect a little of Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge, Barbara Lott; a Sidney Lotterby housewife swallowed up by interminable days filled with mild self-reproach, pointless pleasantries and nervous verbosity.

Despite her predicament Winnie tried to remain upbeat, albeit with ‘sorrow breaking in’. Happy Days is a portrait of stoicism in an age of anxiety; of the power and powerlessness of words.

If the Royal Exchange feels made for Happy Days, the Winnie could have been written for Peake. As a feat of recollection her monologue would be impressive in itself, but Peake manages to imbue Winnie with such rich detail, using every inch of flesh available to bring nuance to her words and gestures. Even as she launches into more platitudes, her fingers worry the straggly grass beneath her.

In the second half only her head is visible, slowly rotating while a small camera displays her visage on screens above the stage, Willie apparently gone. Peake uses every muscle on her face to convey the growing panic, her stiff upper lip only occasionally glanced. Her voice grows more staccato, shrill, entreating. In the end the audience is offered a choice as to how they view the many dualities Beckett serves up, but it leaves a troubling afterimage.

If Happy Days is a test of the audience’s mettle it must be gruelling indeed for Peake, who takes the audience’s fulsome applause while still encased in the mound, moving only to dab at her brow, having been assailed by blinding lights and deafening bells while encased in theatre’s most famous hillock.

She looked to breathe a sigh of relief, exhaustion, satisfaction, perhaps elation. In its own way the audience might have joined in.

• Originally written for WhatsOnStage.

Headbutting The Line

headbutting the line

Australia play hard but fair cricket, we hear. Although David Warner has spoken openly of his ‘hatred’ for England cricket and Nathan Lyon showed his pleasure at running out AB de Villiers by throwing a ball at him, Australia never cross the line. Sure they headbutt the line. But cross it? Never.

That’s always struck me as a very strange way of putting it. What Lyon is getting at is that Aussie likes to bend the rules. With their heads. It’s a curiously aggressive term for admitting you’re going to push the laws of the game to breaking point in a way that only sound physically aggressive.

It’s no coincidence that when Lyon coined the term the contrsoversey surrounding Jonny Bairstow’s headbutt greeting to Cameron Bancroft was being merrily leaked to the Australian press — at a time that might have caused England maximum distraction on the pitch.

The Australian cricket team, Cricket Australia and their more witless cheerleaders in the Australian media have done a very good job of presenting a united front over the last few years when it comes to projecting twin ideas: Australian mettle and the very Australian notion of ‘tough but fair’. 

To see the all three crying to the ICC about intimidation in South Africa has been a laughable sight as the first myth has been put to the sword. Everyone who follows cricket knows the Aussies can dish it out — and how they do — but they can’t take it. It is Australia who seem to have capitulated in the face of a fearsome and unsavoury barrage both on and off the pitch in the current test series. But no-one can claim they haven’t brought it on themselves.

To see that second myth shattered so comprehensively has been electrifying, but not surprising. Nor has it been enjoyable, even for cricketing foes. Indeed the overarching emotions seem to be shock, revulsion — mixed with a vaguely contemptuous pity that such a pathetic plan could have been even conceived by grown men, let alone some of the best cricketers in the world. 

But Australia only have themselves to blame. Much like previous generations of Australian cricketers, the team has started to believe its own hype. Anything they do in pursuit of winning is fair; they might be guilty of headbutting the line but they never cross the line. They’ve got high on their own supply of toxic masculinity for far too long and, buoyed by the best bowling attack in the world, they’ve come to associate their yapping behaviour — rather than talent and hard work — with success.

I always thought it would catch up with Australia. Martin Crowe, in a beautiful article, said as much five years ago when watching the genesis of this current Australian crisis.

[C]onsider the Ashes. While one or two masks are being shed, there is no doubt that the gloves are off for Australia. Failure has forced them to secure the mask once and for all until the last ball is bowled; no drinks with the opposition, no warmth shared, and only a minimum respect. Australia have donned battle garb, to mask their frailties, and it has surprisingly caught England off guard.

Alas, it is not real. If we are honest, it’s just a façade. It’s not really Michael Clarke’s true self, or Darren Lehmann’s. Clarke, up until five minutes to go in the Brisbane Test, displayed a real face and spirit to the challenge in front of him. Then, on the stroke of the kill, his face changed and the mask was there for all to see, ugly and not authentic.

The finger-pointing rant was a performance to lead into the next battle in Adelaide. He did not need to act the way he did. That he did is indeed the Australian way, given they have been humiliated so much recently and had smelled blood. At this point, for such a proud cricketing nation, failure is not an option.

Failure is not an option. So vital, so all-encompassing, so bound up in masculinity and sense of self has winning a game of cricket become that the best batsman in the world hatched a plan with a junior teammate to tamper with the ball, then conspired to lie about it, then addressed it as if accused of a minor transgression. 

This is where the mask, where headbutting the line, has led Australian cricket – to a likely ban and possibly the end of the careers of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. But it’s more than that. Australia’s very psyche seems rocked, as if the team is the country is the people. 

Now Aussies are running for cover. Former players are aghast, the papers Down Under want blood and the squad is keen to distance itself from whoever the ‘leadership group’ may be (as useful an example as any I can recollect of how group defamation works).

To see the juxtaposed images above is to understand how Australia got here. Their bad behaviour was a collective spirit, a joke, a way of life: a ghastly mix of outright malice, aggression, innuendo. Sporting warfare. Egged on by a jingoistic media; tolerated by a cricket board bound in up in a shared myth.

No more laughter now. No more will be said of headbutting the line. The sledging of Jonny Bairstow and, by proxy, Ben Stokes seems like so much small beer in light of what happened yesterday — a cricketing scandal generated by a team so used to butting heads in an attempt to gain the upper hand they rendered themselves insensible.

• Originally published of Medium.com